The South Indian style of temple architecture is very distinct from that of the rest of India. It is convenient to resolve the types of architecture into four periods corresponding to the principal kingdoms.
That ruled in southern India down the centuries i.e. the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas and the Vijayanagara rulers. According to the plan -- four sided, polygonal or curvilinear -- the southern Vimanas are classified in the southern Silpa and Agama texts as Nagara, Dravida and Vesara.
The earliest examples of temples in the Dravidan style belong to the Pallava period. The temple architecture of the Pallavas is divided into two groups: rock-cut (610-690 AD) and structural (690-900 AD). The greatest accomplishments of the Pallava architecture are the rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram.
These temples are further divided into: excavated pillared halls or mandapas and monolithic shrines known as rathas. The five rathas were built by Narasimhavarman I (625-645 AD) and are named after Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja and Sahadeva. The Dharmarajaratha is the longest and most complete of these rathas.
The famous Kailasanatha and the Vanikunthaperumal temples at Kanchipuram are the best specimens of the structural temples of the Pallavas. The temple complex consists of a sanctum, preceded by a mandapa, some peristylar adjuncts and an incipient entrance gateway. Early temples were mostly dedicated to Shiva, and were sparsely adorned in the interiors.
Later, however, pillars bore the brunt of the carver's tool and these came to be richly adorned with scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is interesting to note that while the transition of wood to stone was effected in northern India during the reign of Ashoka in the 3rd Century BC, it took one thousand years more in getting reflected in southern India under the Pallavas.
The Chola art is a continuation of that of Pallava times. The Cholas had built several hundreds of temples, the earlier examples of which were modest in size while the later ones were huge and large with the Vimanas or gopuras dominating the landscape. The temple of Koranganatha at Srinivasanalur in the Trichinopoly district, built during the reign of Parantaka I (907-949 AD) is one of the earliest examples of the Chola architecture.
The temple consists of a pillared hall or mandapa with an attached sanctuary or vimana. The height of the shikhara is 50 feet, while the cornice of the mandapa measures 16 feet from the ground. The Chola architecture achieved its peak at Thanjavur, the capital established by the Chola ruler Rajaraja I. The Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur, erected around 1000 AD, has been described as "the most beautiful specimen of Tamil architecture".
In the words of Percy Brown "apparently the largest, highest and most ambitious production of its kind hitherto undertaken by Indian builders, it is a landmark in the evolution of building art in southern India". The 55 metres long main structure of the temple had a 58 metres feet tall pyramidal tower or shikhara. The temple is composed of several structures combined axially, such as a Nandi pavilion, a pillared portico and a large assembly hall, all aligned in the centre of a spacious walled enclosure.
The temples at Thanjavur, Chidambaram, Sri Rangam, Gangaikonda-Cholapuram, Darasuram and Tribhuvanam amply illustrate the style of architecture that characterised the monuments in southern India between the 11th-13th centuries. The Chola style of architecture also had a considerable influence on the architecture of the Hindu temples of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and those of the Southeast Asian kingdoms like Sri Vijaya (Sumatra) and Chavakam (Java).
The Pandyas (c.1100-1350 AD), although were not among the great building dynasties, built several gopurams or monumental entrances to the existing temples. The earliest examples of gopurams appear during the Pandyan period in the 12th and 13th centuries. A typical gopuram consists of a building oblong in plan, rising up into a tapering tower often over 45.72 metres in height, and entered by a rectangular doorway in the centre of its long side.
The Sundara Pandya gopuram, added to the temple of Jambukesvara around 1250 AD and the gopuram of the great temple at Kumbakoman (c.1350 AD) are the best examples of the gopurams of the Pandyan times. The Pandyas are also credited with the construction of the temple of Airyavatesvara at Darsuram in the Tanjore district towards the first half of the 14th century AD.
Temples erected by the Hoysala kings have a distinctive style of architecture. The Hoysala temples have complicated plans, which may be polygonal or star-shaped with numerous angled projections. The carved surfaces are executed with remarkable precision, usually in chlorite.
The columns are lathe-turned or are multi-faceted. Each temple is supported by a low-pyramidal tower, which is often surmounted by a vase-shaped ornament. On many occasions many such pyramidal towers are used, making the temple look like a double or triple temple. Temples from the Hoysala period can be seen at Belur, Halebid and Sringeri in Karnataka.
The Channakeshava temple, built by the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 AD, is the most celebrated of all the temples at Belur. Halebid is famous for the star-like Hoysala temples. Each temple consists of two temples exactly of the same dimensions, built side by side. The Hoysaleshvara Temple is the most famous of the Halebid temples.
By the 16th century almost all of southern India was part of the Vijayanagar Empire. The Vijayanagar rulers were great patrons of art and architecture.
Scholars on the Vijayanagar style of art have observed that this art inherited aspects from three main regional styles of the art of South India, viz., the Dravidian style of the Cholas and Pandyas, the style of the Chalukya-Hoysala tradition and the Indo-Islamic art of the Bijapur region.
The Vijaynagar rulers built strong fortresses, gorgeous palaces and beautiful temples. The Vijayanagar temple architecture has some special features. The characteristic feature of this period is the development of the temple complex: concentric series of rectangular enclosure walls with the gopuras (towered gateways) in the middle of each side.
The construction of several mandapas, the Kalyana mandapa being the most conspicuous among them, was a notable feature of the period. The temples also had the Devi Shrine to keep the replicas of the consort of the deity. Another noteworthy feature of the temples is the absence of mortar in their construction.
The Vijayanagar tradition shows a distinct scheme of decoration in terms of architectural space. Decorative friezes are utilised horizontally on the plinth moulding, caves and pillars of the temple interiors. They appear vertically on the composite pillars, plasters of the walls and doorways of the gopuras as well as the inner part of temples. The pillars in the mandapas consist of figural motifs in low relief on their cubical members.
The city of Vijayanagar was studded with so many temples that it was called Kovilapura. Of the numerous Vijayanagar complexes in southern India, the most magnificent are those at Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai and Vellore. The Temple of Pampapati, the Hazararama temple and the Vittalaswami temple are the best examples of the Vijayanagar architecture.
The ruins of Buggala Ramalingeswara at Tadpatri also depict the Vijayanagar architecture at its best. This period also witnessed the construction of several secular structures like the Lotus Mahal and Elephant stables, which show strong Islamic influence.
The Dravidian style of architecture assumed its final form under the Nayaks (c.1600 AD) and lasted almost until the modern times. Tirumalai Nayak, who ruled from 1623-1659 AD, was the greatest of the Nayak rulers, during whose reign some of the finest works of art were created.
The style developed by these rulers is described as the 'Madura style' and is most evident in the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. The Meenakshi temple (17th century) is a double temple, as it has two separate sanctuaries.
One dedicated to Sundareshwara (Shiva) and the other to his consort Meenakshi (Parvati). It has the tallest Gopuram (temple tower) in the world. The temple forms a parallelogram and has 11 gopurams, one thousand-pillared hall, 'pool of lilies' and the 'musical pillars'. The total number of pillars in the temple exceeds two thousand.
The Nayaks built several prakarams or concentric series of open courtyards at many temples. The art of constructing gopurams also reached its maturity during the Nayaka period.
The temples at Srirangam, Jambukesvara, Rameshwaram and Chidambaram are other notable examples of the Nayaka architecture.